On CD Quality…

By Bryan Geyer

Bob Widlar, the Genesis
When partners Sony and Philips initially teamed to develop the compact disc (1979) and the first CDs came to market (in early 1983, in the U.S.), the unveiling was widely hailed as the arrival of “perfect sound forever”. That infamous quote has long been derided by persistent doubters, and there have been plenty of hiccups en route, but much of the best unbiased opinion of today concludes that the Sony/Philips claim was effectively prescient, although premature. Assuming good playback mechanics and modern decoding technology, standard Red Book CDs are now aurally indistinguishable from the finest high resolution means of digital recording extant. While a select set of audiophiles might still dispute that opinion, and contend that some favored hi-rez digital streaming process presents audible advantage, their collective criticism has shriveled. Today, with obviously increasing consistency, dedicated audio connoisseurs concur that, finally, there’s little or no detectable difference between standard Red Book CD audio quality and the best of the other alternatives. Any aural quality gap, if such exists at all, is now too trifling to merit recognition when it comes to human perception.

What accounts for this evolutionary improvement in CD sound quality? Well, just as in the case of so many other things, there’s likely no one single reason. It’s probably the culmination of a lot of learning, adjustment, and adaptation—plus dramatic improvement the accuracy of the monolithic integrated circuit chips that comprise all modern digital-to-analog converters (DACs). Here’s my take…

Listening habits…
When CDs were initially introduced, listeners were quick to appreciate the improvement in background noise, but many didn’t know how to handle the enhanced dynamic range to best advantage. This certainly happened to me! In 1987, I already owned an LP recording of the original Perlman/Giulini  performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and when I compared it to the new CD release of the same performance, I judged the CD sound to be inferior; it seemed subdued. I later realized that this was because I had listened at about the same peak volume levels as set for the LP record. When I later advanced the volume to boost the quiet passages of the CD to more nearly match the LP’s quiet parts, the CD sound came alive; the enhanced dynamic range was then apparent. It took me a while to adjust to this asset. Even today, I think that lots of listeners persist in setting “sub-natural” CD volume levels. This tendency is further driven by the compulsion to reduce the listening level when bombarded by pop-market CDs that are mastered with compressed peaks (to yield consistently loud sound). That’s a stunt that can’t be done when mastering to vinyl, and might account for the vinyl preference that some listeners profess when they compare a popular LP record with its CD equivalent. Thankfully, this intentional compression of the signal is confined exclusively to the making of “pop market” CDs, where the “mobile market” dominates, and where loud equates with better. Classical music CDs have never been mis-mastered in this same corrupt manner.

Learning curve priorities…
Early phase CDs that trace to the mid/late 1980s were often inconsistent. Mixing and mastering techniques were in flux, and conversion accuracy didn’t meet what’s available today*. Progressive improvements in recording technology evolved throughout the mid-’90s and into the ensuing decade, buoyed by improved methods of test and measurement. This progress was probably slowed by the attendant clamor to create higher density storage when emphasis was diverted to focus on various forms of compression, e.g. MP3 (1993) + its derivatives (1995, 1998, 2008). Regardless, the decisions and commitments that Sony and Philips made in the beginning have ultimately proved correct. Forty year foresight in the field of consumer technology is rare, but these two companies were uniquely capable, with superb engineering staffs, visionary management, and a strength of conviction seldom seen in corporate environs. It’s accurate to say that what they promised has been achieved.

Conversion accuracy…
Major advances in monolithic semiconductor manufacture, especially with respect to the “on board” integration of symmetrical differential linear topology, has progressively boosted the performance of audio frequency DAC chips. Designs that were once considered challenging are now churned out on bigger wafers, with better test yields. These current generation chips can provide standard Red Book CD sound quality that’s fully consistent with the limits of human perception, and do so at costs that make it feasible to use them in a wide variety of consumer-level gear. Their application in the high performance audio products market has been pervasive in the course of the recent decade.

CD access…
While it’s convenient to access CD quality via Tidal streaming, that means is somewhat better suited to popular music. Cloud shopping for classical selections can get complex; maybe even messy. Your personal nature, and the music genre involved, will largely decide how you elect to build your own private music library. My overwhelming preference is to buy and own the physical CD, rather than pay for periodic access. I vastly prefer having the disc in hand. But I always listen only at home—I’m not into mobile listening—and I utilize headphones only in the bedroom, and only for audio books.

Those who express serious interest in playing CDs at home will need a good player and a modern DAC. The latter can be either self-contained, inside the CD transport, or provided as a separate external box. Top quality converters are available both ways, and an external DAC isn’t inherently superior. In my experience, “good” CD players start in the vicinity of ~ $1,500 and go upward. The cheaper players are just not consistently reliable. A really good CD player should provide long problem-free service life, smooth and responsive control options, quiet operation, and a relatively modern DAC. Stick to single disc players. There are no existing multi-disc CD players that I can personally recommend at this time, and the play time (to 80 minutes max.) of a CD is such that one-at-a-time feeding is appropriate. Use an FM tuner source if you want background fill. Used CD players are obviously high risk, and they might not utilize a modern DAC.

The vinyl alternative…

BG (January 2020)

*Monolithic operational amplifiers have become a vital component in the evolution of high performance DACs. The world’s first op amp chips (µA702, µA709) appeared in the mid-1960s, as devised by linear design genius Bob Widlar, a brilliant eccentric who was then at Fairchild Semiconductor. Intensive development and improvement followed throughout the 1970s and into the mid-’80s. Later emphasis was devoted to advances in symmetrical integration, shrinking topology, increases in wafer size, and yield enhancement. All of the high performance DACs made today utilize this late phase linear technology. The level of excellence that’s been achieved in the past 15 years exceeds anything previously envisioned, and current OEM selling prices make these op amp chips practical for use in almost any consumer market electronic product.

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa